I took a long deep breath and held it in for a few seconds before slowly exhaling. I began looking back on the morning. Just like a Kansas tornado, my mornings were a mixture of chaos and noise spinning madly throughout the house with a lost shoe, a missing backpack, a fight over a sweatshirt, and milk from a toppled cereal bowl running off the counter and dripping to the floor. But then, at 7:45 with kisses, hugs, and reassurances that they will live a full life even if their brother wears their sweatshirt, they would spill out the door and down the block toward school.
And as soon as the door closed behind the last straggler in the group, there was an eerie silence that left a hollow ringing in my ears. I felt uneasy for a moment. Is someone still here and hiding? Did I miss-count on their way out the door? Is someone going to burst back through that door crying because someone else tripped them? Did someone forget something? Did I forget something...? A bit lost, I stood in place surveying the destruction. Then, I spotted my coffee mug sitting on the kitchen island –still hot and waiting. Wrapping both my hands around the hot mug, I sat down on a stool, and took a long deep breath. Hot coffee never tastes better than immediately after a long deep breath. Maybe it was because I didn’t seem to take very many of these anymore.
It was unusual that I had the morning off; it afforded me the luxury of sitting, sipping my hot coffee. Regardless of this luxury, I felt the same nagging hollowness press against my ribs and sink into my stomach. Rather than contemplate this deep sadness, I did what I always do: I turned my thoughts to my kids. My built-in auto response, which protects me from looking too long and too close at the uglier aspects of life, shifted my contemplation to how satisfying it was to be the mom of four chaotic but awesome kids. They were four of the most unique personalities I had ever met and I had the privilege of sharing my life with them. My oldest, Jack, who is 14, is always in shorts (no matter how cold the Wisconsin forecast might be), his moppy head of thick long curls diving into his ears and into his eyes. Very little doesn’t qualify as some sort of a battle with him; I look at him and have to take a deep breath in because chances are I will have to defend my position on why wearing shorts –when it is 15ºF—is not a good idea, or how it is possible that I know he should study his vocab words if he only got half of them right on his quiz yesterday.
Then there is my daughter, my beautiful, wonderful, high energy daughter, Raina. Her 9 year old body is capable of feeling every emotion within a short period of time. Her heart is so big she will feel and express every emotion as it comes to her. As she squeals loudly over a silly comment she has just made, she will be brought to tears over the thought that she left her special art project at school, and then she will be scolding her brother, Peter, for saying crude words before I’ve even figured out how to respond to her tears.
Peter is my 7 year old son who suffers from OCD; his highs are very high and his lows come quick and are very dramatic. He is able to manage it for the most part, but when he is eating his cereal and his stool isn’t pulled up so tight to the counter I question whether he can breathe or not, he will go from joy to screams in a second. When he smiles his one dimple stands out and his whole face lights up; you wouldn’t be able to imagine him ever being upset. That is why it is such a bummer when Jesse, his little brother, accidentally tips his bowl of cereal and the milk runs wildly right towards Peter.
This brings me to my youngest: Jesse. He is six. He is everything I was as a child and more. His big round baby face looks so sad when he accidentally tips his cereal over while telling a silly story to counter his sister’s silly joke; you can’t help but forgive him before he has said a word. And, seeing as how he spills his cereal nearly every other day, I remind him he is lucky he is so cute and loves to kiss his mama still.
While I mulled over how lucky I was, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony that I was also relieved that they had all left for school. What a paradox my life was.
With my mug cradled in my hands, my eyes ran the length of the ten foot solid walnut counter. In spite of being littered with the remains of half eaten breakfasts, its deep rich brown color warmed me as my coffee did. My eyes moved around the great room that housed my kitchen, dining room, and ended in my hearth room. I checked off the details, my details, my choices. I had designed the house on graph paper; chosen all the details, from structural, architectural, and aesthetic; I had worked as the general contractor; and, I had spent nearly every single day for ten months with some tool in my hand, working from morning till night.
My eyes passed over the natural stone flooring that ran throughout the kitchen and dining room and met up with the deep warm Brazilian walnut floor of the hearth room. The stone I had picked reminded me of the dynamic moving colors of autumn leaves: yellows swirled into oranges that grew into deeper and darker shades of brown. Tall walnut pillars divide the dining room from the hearth room like smooth dark tree trunks. The stone-faced fireplace like a stone outcropping melded with the paint on the walls and blended the colors of an autumn corn field and the last few minutes of a setting sun. Two French doors placed deliberately encouraged the sun to pour in. The paintings that adorned the walls consisted of garden gates and vividly colored landscapes. The room ended with an eight-foot picture window, framing a beautiful view of trees that lined the edge of a lake. I sat at the counter, cupping my cooling coffee mug, mesmerized by the movement of the trees that reached and danced with the wind that blew off the lake.
“Thousands of leaves,” I thought, “maybe millions.”
Something stirred deep inside me. For a moment, I imagined I felt the same wind blowing through my hair that was tossing the trees so effortlessly about. I imagined the sun, flashing between the branches, slipping in between the leaves, and jumping about across my face.
“I know you. I’ve seen you before… I felt your bark on my skin as my hands ran across your trunk. I felt the softness of your leaves fresh from the spring’s budding.”
Looking closer, I saw myself right there among the trees. I was running through the woods, skipping lightly over the fallen twigs, sweating, laughing, and calling to my dog to keep up with me. I was nine or ten years old. I wove in between the maze of tree trunks, around a group of birch, twisting to avoid running into the autumn maple. I scraped my skin raw as the bark of the big oak caught my shoulder and upper arm. Undeterred, onward I pushed; deeper into the safety of the rows and stacks and lines of so many tall, deep rooted trees.
I was deep within the forest that surrounded my second childhood home; a home that nestled into the side of a hill. There was not much wind in there, but when I looked up, the tree tops collectively pranced back and forth across the blue sky. As I skipped between the trees, I wondered if mom would be mad that I had ripped my shorts attempting to jump over the barbed-wire fence. I probably slipped because my shoes were wet from falling in the creek earlier. The creek was forbidden, but I couldn’t stop myself from going to the water’s edge to watch the water swirling around then racing away down the river bed. It hypnotized me. I hoped she would be too busy to notice my dirty and torn clothes when I got back. I didn’t have a lot of patience for worrying in those days. So, with the next amazing leap over a fallen dead tree my concerns were gone.
My country home felt peaceful, with a deep dense forest, and sun grazed ridge tops. The five of us in my family were close; though each of us had such unique personalities. We worked and played together, and we supported each other. You could almost hear the sun’s hot rays as they poured down on the cleared side of our hill where our house was being built by my parent’s own hands. My mother’s gardens stretched across the hill’s contoured shape. When I wasn’t sneaking down to the creek or running through the forest, I would skip rope on top of the piles of lumber meant for our house, or sneak into the garden and eat as many snow peas as I could before being told to leave them for supper.
It was beautiful there. It was a place where everything was free: free to dance, to move, free to rise and fall with the strong gusts of wind, and free to bloom into large bursts of crimson sprinkled yellow or brilliant fire-oranges. Here was a place my sisters and I were free to dance naked in the rain. It was a place where beans could be picked and eaten right in the garden, tomatoes grew large, and the herbs were picked each night for dinner. It was a collective existence.
Here we heard only the birds and the small animals when they crept across the twig littered forest floor, and the vibrating noises of the cicadas, bees, and dragon flies, their wings beating the air a warning of their approach. Most days the sun with its offering of heavy heat drove me into the welcoming arms of the forest. The wild life carried on around me, bringing me in, sharing their little treasured secrets. This was a place I felt was mine alone –a private and secret world.
It was a place that was situated far from any neighbors –far from slabs of cracked concrete–far from heaps of garbage comprised of broken glass, dirty diapers, crushed beer cans, and scattered cigarette butts –far from the deep angry sounds of the inner city with all its fighting, squealing tires, sirens, and relentless crying.
I understood the safety the forest provided. I didn’t always live here…
We didn’t always live on the curve of a sun-drenched hill. There was a time when I lived among few trees; my last memories of this place are from when I was six. This was a forgotten neighborhood of worn out, used up, neglected, and fading people. Those here were jailed by the cracked concrete, victims of an inherited poverty wrought by the history of a capitalist society. These trees that sit in the back recesses of my memory were located in the failing and ugly patch of earth beauty had long since run from. Here the sun beat down on the concrete, boiling the air, and heating up the unrest that simmered and stewed in the people of this North Minneapolis neighborhood.
Surrounding our long back yard there was a tall wire fence that separated my family from the rest of the neighborhood. Just inside our back fence stood two towering ancient crab apple trees. In the spring they could be seen from almost anywhere on the block, but they were nearly the only trees on the block. Their roots appeared to be climbing out of our sand and weed infested yard. It looked to me as though the trees were pulling their roots up to run out of the neighborhood and find a better home, a safer home.
On my way to my friend’s house, I meandered over the arching roots –balancing, tipping, arms stretched out, rocking, making it—finally, I would work my way to the back corner of the fence where there was a gate. I lifted the latch, pulled open the reluctant gate, and entered the alley. The alley was the way to everywhere.
Outside the safety of my fenced backyard, I stood atop slabs of cracked concrete covered in sand and dirt. The dusty monotone colors covered almost everything in our neighborhood. Lining the alleyway, were scatterings of beer cans and cigarette butts, among other rejected things. Pieces of glass sparkled in these piles like tinsel on a dead and discarded Christmas tree.
I walked by tall looming thistles that would reach out to grab me if I accidentally walked too close. Hidden among the thistles, were the soggy remains of soiled Pampers. They were clumped in the dark recesses of the rotting-out garage walls and busted fence lines of the back yards that met the alley. Some soiled diapers sat like fresh road-kill in the middle of the alley or by the tire of a rusted out car. A stray and starving cat hissed at me by the thistles. Even though his skin pulled tight against his ribs and his one eye was stuck shut with puss, he was still prepared to defend this territory, his territory.
The mean boys sometimes waited down the alley for me. They lived above the backs of the business buildings that faced the other side of the street. The brick back face of the building loomed over their parking lot with a depressive dusty gray tone that neither reflected the sunlight nor seemed to absorb it. These apartments were accessed by a series of ominously sagging old wooden staircases. From across the street, I would peer out the front window of my home and watch the children play in the parking lot of worn down concrete covered with gravel and littered with potholes that were filled with muddy rain water and who knows what else. The edges of this barren scene held the wind-swept remains of trash that clustered in the corners and silently told the story of their lives.
Naked toddlers without pants, their soiled diapers hanging to their knees, tottered precariously on the crooked, splintered balconies. In the winter, small children would be outside playing in the snow wearing nothing more than shorts and t-shirts. Angry mean mothers jerked their children up the stairs by their arms, their crying naked babies perched on their hips. I never saw any men outside there, I never saw them come or go, yet it was always men that the police would take away.
It seemed like the mean boys lay in wait for the times my sister and I were sent to pick up milk at the 7—Eleven . They would pound on my sister’s back when we were walking home as she desperately held tight to the gallon of milk. I heard the hollow thud when each fist and forearm came down on her back mixed with their laughter, jarring and terrifying because they were laughing at their hate –and my sister’s fear. She was a year older than me and I thought she was so brave not to cry until later.
Walking down the alley, I had to pass by men sitting on the back steps of their houses. These steps with their peeling paint emptied to a dirt yard littered with debris. Afraid to make eye contact, I looked down at the ground watching my blue shoes, with the hole in the left toe, kick up sand as I walked. I wasn’t looking at them, but my mind couldn’t stop seeing them through the lens of my fear. In my mind, I saw these men laughing out one side of their mouth while the other side cussed and spit wads of hot dirty saliva into the sand. They smoked their cigarettes with their stewing anger and blew their simmering hate in clouds around their heads. Sometimes I heard them yell out to me something drunken and unintelligible. And I heard the cans being crushed in their fists and the clank as they tossed them, which I imagined were thrown at me. Journal
Next to our house was a small apartment building whose parking lot emptied into the alley right outside our gate. Sometimes groups of these men stood huddled together by a dirty car that had a stack of cinder blocks for a crutch under one of its axils. One day while playing in my backyard, I heard one man’s wife yell something to him from an apartment window, which made him storm inside the building. Just after that, I heard the muffled sounds of him yelling. Then I heard her screaming. Sometimes when I was trying to go to sleep at night I heard this same woman’s screaming. Maybe it was the same woman; I guess I don’t know. It crept under my skin and made me feel sick. Sometimes the police would come, but after they left there would always be more screaming.
At night the sound of fighting always kept me awake. I felt haunted by the howl of hungry cats and the bark of neglected dogs, tied and forgotten without food or water. I was comforted by the deep muffled sounds of the rock band that practiced all night in the warehouse across the street. The sounds of the band floated in through my bedroom window at night as I lay awake, listening. The breeze that came in to relieve the humid heat that filled my room danced the sheer window curtain to the rhythmic pulse of the music. In the glow of the street light, I lay on my mattress watching the curtain waltz so freely about the window, while silently hoping that the band would not stop playing –hoping that tonight there would be no screaming, no sirens, that would interrupt the band’s reassuring thumping.
One day my sister and I sat on a bench at North Commons Park waiting for the pool to open. A man, dragging a young woman, then threw her over the bushes not far from where we sat. He took his clenched fist to this girl right there on the sunlit lawn of our community park. I saw the energy of anger and hatred gather up into a fist and then release all its pressure on her. Her head strained up from behind those bushes from time to time screaming something I couldn’t understand.
“You better stop fucking looking or you’re next!” that angry man screamed at us. We sat paralyzed with fear on the bench praying for the pool to open. I couldn’t wait to get behind that tall chain-link fence that guarded the pool from the lawn and those bushes. So, I stared at the still blue water of the pool’s deep end –still forced to listen to her screaming.
Above all this stood those two ancient crab apple trees. Their spring flowers a bright pink contrast dancing above the dust and dirt, the garbage and anger, the broken people. The branches on those trees danced above my little head, too: above my disheveled wind-blown hair; above my t-shirt and shorts covered in the alley’s dust; above my scuffed and dirt-stained knees; above my blue canvas shoes with the hole in the left toe.
So, this is what I had spent my entire adult life running from.
The emotion that washed over me when remembering that confused little girl, picking up shards of glass by the beer cans, brought me back to the present. She has been buried in my memory for so long. Smiling while drinking in my memories, I saw little blue eyes widen and drink in the crab apple trees’ rebellious spectacle with awe and longing. Up there in those branches, towering over me and the filthy alley, over the anger and the hate, I noticed real beauty, natural beauty. Beauty that was free.
Overcome with longing, I sat on my stool in the kitchen, my coffee mug still full but now cold in my hands. I looked out the picture window at the trees outside. In fact, it was just a picture. The glass window I had so loved stood between me and the trees like jail bars. There it was –framed by Marvin Windows—the soul food I so desperately needed. I realized it had been too long since I had felt the wind in my hair and the sun sprinkle my face with warmth. I had built a house that did nothing but simulate what was once an authentic part of my life. I had built a life as far from North Minneapolis as I could manage.
I looked at my picture window, no longer noticing the swaying trees on the other side. Rather, I saw my distant reflection, hunched over on a stool. Standing up and walking toward the window, I saw my reflection in the glass grow bigger. I saw the very same blue eyes I had seen in my memories widening in anticipation, the same pale blond disheveled hair.
I had designed this room with an eight-foot picture window whose purpose was to showcase beauty; I thought this meant I wasn’t living in poverty. But in doing this I had put a wall between myself and nature. And here is the paradox my life had become: I had been enshrining symbols of my inner most desires and fondest memories. It had not occurred to me why I still felt so empty. I was a caged wild animal; only, I had built the cage myself.
Adults tend to do this. We replace the real sources of joy in life with distractions and artificial replications. We don’t seek out the beauty in the world; we buy a captured picture and pin it to the very walls that separate us from what once used to be our playground. And worse, when we realize these pictures aren’t working for us (maybe because we’ve become bored with seeing that image, maybe we don’t like that style anymore, maybe it’s not as nice as something else out there), we discard them. We sculpt our yards and feel proud at having the greenest lawn in the cul-du-sac. Then we buy large vehicles to take our children down the concrete slabs that empty into other concrete slabs that eventually deposit us at stores where we buy more pictures for our walls.
I thought I had succeeded because I had managed to lock out the ugliness of life from my adult life: humanity would look as beautiful as the home I lived in. But what did I really have?
As a parent, I now have four sets of young and beautiful blue eyes that look up to me to show them the value of life. I will show them that it lies in the sparkling light that waits to spill on their faces and it is anywhere they live whether it is in our finely manicured neighborhood or a North Minneapolis neighborhood. It lies in the sound of the wind as it rustles the leaves, pulling at them all summer until winter’s cold wind wins the tug-o-war.
I need to teach them not to replace the real sources of joy in life with distractions and artificial replications; but rather to seek out the beauty in the world.
I had been sitting, perched on a stool in the middle of my meticulously sculpted home. My home surrounded me with reminders of natural beauty. I had thought that if I made a beautiful home I would want for nothing as there would be nothing left to want for. Nothing here would remind me of my childhood home –of poverty. Yet, surrounding myself with all this had not been enough to remind me to keep living. The brave little girl kicking up sand as she walked down the alley was still inside me. She is a part of me as much as the trees were. I can embrace her.
“Wait ‘til I tell the kids that I found something I had lost for such a long time…!”